A little plagiarism at the AP?

Almost all of my students at St. Augustine’s University tell me they “never use Wikipedia” because “you can’t trust it.” I spend the next ten minutes telling them it’s not that unreliable and that the key is to use the footnotes to find the sources the article is based on (trust, but verify).

In fact, working journalists often turn to Wikipedia for a crash course on deadline. Consider this July 24 AP story about NSA leaker Edward Snowden by Nataliya Vasilyeva and Laura Mills. They report that a Russian lawyer has been bringing the American – who is holed up in the Moscow airport figuring out how to get to a safe haven – books to read, including Crime and Punishment.

Vasilyeva and Mills write: “The novel is about the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of a poor ex-student who kills a pawnbroker for her cash.”

Wikipedia’s entry for the novel says: “Crime and Punishment focuses on the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student in St. Petersburg who formulates and executes a plan to kill an unscrupulous pawnbroker for her cash.”

It seems pretty clear that they cribbed their description from Wikipedia (and perhaps the Wikipedia writer cribbed the description from yet another source, and yet another possible cribber). We cannot expect reporters to reread a novel to provide a brief description. But it is inappropriate to borrow specific language – “mental anguish and moral dilemmas.”

Don’t get me wrong – this is small beer; it’s plagiarism with a tiny p. If these reporters worked for me I’d ask them why they did it, tell them never again and move on.

But in the age of the internet, when so much information is available, it is even more important that reporters guard against lazy habits and give credit where credit is due. My guess is that these reporters would never in a million years say “according to Wikipedia” but that seems to be exactly what they did.

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